During our time in San Francisco we took some time to catch up with Howard Marks, the man who brought Acclaim back to life as an MMO company. In the first of three articles based on this interview, we learn about 9Dragons as it approaches commercial service in April.


GDC 2007: 9Dragons Preview
Based on interview with Howard Marks (Acclaim, CEO)
Article by Dana Massey

imageThe flood of Asian-MMO imports has left many in the game media writing them off before they even open their doors. Acclaim seems to have bucked the trend with 9Dragons, their first major MMORPG. Like many, they took a successful Asian MMO and translated it to English, but during our GDC meeting with Howard Marks – the company’s CEO – it became clear why they’re having success where others have failed. 9Dragons has an aggressive, but realistic distribution and pricing plan and his North American studio has put an emphasis on truly translating the game – not just the text – for the North American audience.

All of this extra effort has meant that their Open Beta has over 250,000 players who have registered for and downloaded the client. It has also enabled Acclaim to secure European publishing rights to the game as they expand their service over a second ocean.

“The game is doing well, it’s a niche game as you know,” Marks told me when asked about the progress in beta. He alluded briefly to a plan that he thinks will “make heads spin” to improve the game’s content prior to launch.

He also emphasized the company’s belief in consumer feedback. Earlier this year, they commissioned a large survey of questions about 9Dragons. These spanned from gameplay to economics to presentation and with the results in, the team have been hard at work bringing these suggestions to the players. The full results of this survey are available on their website.

imageAuthor Steven Elliot-Altman, the creative head of the project, can regularly be found in-game and on the message boards talking to the community and gaging where the game is. Incorporation of user feedback is an ongoing battle for the team.

Marks also told me of an interesting solution Acclaim has worked up for gold farmers in their beta. When they get a report that someone is farming, the GMs zoom in and verify. If found guilty, rather than just banning the character, they actually teleport them to the middle of the PvP zone. What began as a punishment has turned into a mini-game with some players camping the PvP area in the hope that new gold farmers will find themselves dropped into the fray. The whole experience sounds quite cathartic.

They also revealed that they plan to open a dedicated PvP 9Dragons server in April. In the meantime, players can amuse themselves in the Bloody Planes, a PvP area.

Marks hopes to launch 9Dragons in April of this year with the debut of their item mall, but for the most part, the game is already in full scale operation. Hundreds of thousands are playing as the team works to nail down consumer issues before money enters the equation.

9Dragons will make money in two ways. The first is the item mall. Unlike most games that require a monthly fee, anyone can download and play 9Dragons free of charge. The company makes money by selling extras in their item mall. These things range from customization tweaks to a “premium service” account that gives players 30 days of XP boosts.

“[Items are] not a silver bullet,” Marks emphasized. While players can make their life easier or more fun with micropayments, they cannot gain advantages that make non-paying players second class citizens. This is a tough balance to strike, but nothing in the list of potential item mall purchases struck me as something that would upset that balance.

The second half of their business model is advertising. Advertising has supported websites like this one for years, but for whatever reason, has only had limited exposure in online games. We’ve been able to buy Nike shoes for our basketball players for years on the consoles, but pure, up-front and blatant advertising generally does not support fully 3D games.

In their beta, Acclaim has just plugged the advertising in and Marks ran me through some of the ways they hope to provide the most for potential advertisers without taking away from the player experience.

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  • Click & Win: This is a form of opt in-advertising. Randomly, a button appears in the corner of the screen for a few seconds. If a player chooses to click it, they watch a brief advertisement on their screen and then are entered into a draw for free in-game gold. Marks promises that this is non-obstrusive and totally optional for players.
  • Meditation Mini-Map: When players sit down to regain mana and health, their mini-map rolls over into a square advertisement box. Marks noted that players don’t actually need this UI element when regaining health. As a bonus for advertisers, the player’s focus is likely not required on the game itself during those moments. When the player stands, the ad disappears. Players can stand at any time and interrupt the advertisement.
  • Launch and Loading Screens: An obvious one is that ads are displayed while the game is loading content.
  • Changing Areas: When a player enters a new area, that area’s name pops up on the screen and then rotates into an advertisement for a few seconds. This is something that does not interrupt gameplay.
  • Death: The most controversial is an advertisement when players die. After death, when a player returns to life, a big add pops up in the middle of the screen. Obviously, players found this quite annoying. Marks listened and now they’re shortening that advertisement and making sure players are impervious to attack while it displays. If feedback continues to be negative here, Marks admitted they may take further steps.

All of these ads will be sold off to whoever is willing to buy them. Advertisers get access to the notoriously hard to reach young-male demographic and players get a game that is free to play. In effect, advertisers in 9Dragons will be sponsoring free gameplay, a concept that has more in common with TV ads where someone says “[insert favorite TV show here] is brought to you by [insert company here].”

Unlike websites, 9Dragons has two interesting conflicts to explore.

imageFirst, will Acclaim take advertisements from other game companies? The answer is yes, provided the advertisement is not directly derogative to 9Dragons.

Second, will they take ads from gold-farming companies like IGE? Marks does not foresee any such ads in any of the Acclaim games, but will not issue a blanket ban over the companies. So, for example, if a gold-farming company had a secondary business that was not reliant on the core business, Marks sees no reason why he would turn them away.

Marks also revealed that as a thank you to the community, as much as 20 to 30% (the exact percentage has not been firmly decided) of the advertising space would be given up to personal, non-commercial community advertisements. These would be free and vetted only for content (swearing, pornography) and to ensure that they are in fact personal and not commercial advertisements trying to avoid paying their fees. Thus, if a player hosts a fansite or just wants to tell people about his guild, he can do that free of charge.

The sign-up numbers for a game of this nature, especially one that is historical rather than medieval fantasy, are impressive. In April, the real test comes when 9Dragons joins Bots as the second game in commercial operation for the reborn MMO publisher. So far, things are only looking positive.


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